Gone Cold: Unsolved Crimes and How to Address Them

What Is a Cold Case?

Cold cases are crimes that for lack of evidence investigators have had to put off solving. The longer a case goes without progress, the more resources the investigating agency will divert from it to address fresher work, until the old case has no life at all beyond maybe a perfunctory standing request to the public for information. This outcome is not uncommon: the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report indicates that investigators resolve homicides—that is, cases given the highest priority by law enforcement—around 62% of the time. How many less weighty cases must be set aside in the end?

How Many Cold Cases Are There?

There are now, again drawing from the UCR, something close to 250,000 unsolved murders in the US, and each year that number grows by about 6,000. That means hundreds of thousands of families, and their friends, who must endure a shocking bereavement without even the relief of knowing what happened or seeing perpetrators brought to justice. This is not to cast doubt on the performance of police, who after all cannot materialize evidence by wishing; nonetheless the rising number of unsolved crimes across the country, both homicides and others, has prompted the National Institute of Justice, in its whimsically-titled manual National Best Practices for Implementing and Sustaining a Cold Case Investigation Unit, to offer advice for police agencies trying to make headway on dormant cases. What can this document teach us about the cold case problem?

Cold Case Handbook

The NIJ authors’ first point is that, due to lack of funding or formal guidance or both, only 7% of all police departments they surveyed assign investigators to cold cases exclusively. No wonder, then, that these cases are piling up at the rate we see now. The manual goes on to counter claims that cold case units are ineffective or not cost-effective, describing first how advancements in forensic techniques and the accumulation of evidence in national forensic databases make this a better time than any before to maintain a cold case unit, second how having personnel assigned to unsolved crimes averts future costs and provides intangible benefits, such as improving an agency’s relationship with the community it serves.

The need for their advice established, the NIJ authors turn to the design and implementation of cold case units. This, they say, will vary from one agency to the next, as rural police, for example, will have far fewer cold cases than their urban peers, the crimes they deal with will be different, and the budget available will most likely be smaller. All these factors would influence the manner of implementation. Perhaps a department has the ability to select a team internally to handle cold cases; this would be what Best Practices refers to as the “independent model.” Perhaps two or more small departments would be well-advised to pool resources and form a shared cold case unit; this is the “partnership model.” No matter what form the group assigned to unsolved crimes takes, the NIJ manual emphasizes that its work should be as much of a priority as that of other divisions, since the difference it makes extends well beyond closure rates, i.e., the percentage of cases investigators are able to solve.

No one likes expending energy on a project that never seems to get anywhere. That includes police, and it seems unreasonable to expect investigators to work on new and cold cases simultaneously with equal focus. Giving our law enforcement officials a chance to specialize in one or the other is a proven way to gain ground on cases that otherwise would get left behind.

For more information:

https://www.ojp.gov/news/ojp-blogs/2019/crisis-cold-cases#:~:text=Experts%20estimate%20that%2C%20based%20on,for%20agencies%20with%20limited%20budgets.

https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/252016.pdf


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